Courtesy of Fiona Tan and the Frith Street Gallery, London
"Rise and Fall" captures the lives of two women, one young and one old, and coaxes viewers into examining the finer points of memory.
Wed, Oct 6, 2010
The Art of Memory: Fiona Tan at the Sackler Gallery
Tan focuses on identity and how the past and present merge in every life.
When I was a child, I walked to school on a pine-shaded trail that followed a creek. And the creek waited for me in the afternoons, as it gobbled the flat stones I tossed like a skinny, utterly serious Nolan Ryan.
At least that’s how I remember it.
Truth is, my mother recently reminded me that, for at least four years, I had to take the long way to school through an adjacent neighborhood rampant with stray dogs and the worse kind of predator: school-skipping teens intent on pounding sodas in their Ford Fairlanes while listening to Zeppelin at full volume and howling at the elementary-school lambs.
Dodge those slings and arrows each day and you, too, might concoct a different, more harmonious, memory of walking to school.
Contemporary artist Fiona Tan examines memory in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery. “Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall” employs video, photographs and film to tell us something we may have already suspected: our memories, and therefore the foundation of identity, shift like dunes on a beach.
Tan, born in 1966 in Indonesia to a Chinese-Indonesian father and an Australian-Scottish mother, eventually settled in Amsterdam. She has gained renown in the Netherlands, England and France for work that challenges the relationship between image and narrative.
This idea is carried out with poignancy at the Sackler in “The Changeling,” a series of pre-World War II schoolgirl portraits Tan found at a flea market. If one were to discover these images in a dusty bin at a collector’s show, they would merely be sepia ghosts—silent in past histories not easy to embrace. But Tan believes in storytelling, and she audaciously creates a history for these faces by offering audio—with actors speaking for the girl pictured, her mother and grandmother—as the 200 portraits stream by in a single frame. Suddenly, the images, most unsmiling, all carrying the brazenness of youth, are alive.
Walk into another room at the exhibit, and Tan offers a portrait of her everyday life in Amsterdam, though with a painterly touch. Each of the six black-and-white “portraits” in “Provenance” hangs inside two-inch-thick vertical frames on the walls. Stark, modest and quiet, one quickly realizes something isn’t quite ordinary about Tan’s subjects: they move. Indeed, the portraits are small films that Tan digitized; the frames are actually video monitors, revealing snatches of daily lives—a former professor reading, a father and son tending to their grocery store, a cabaret performer prepping for the day—that seem profoundly more interesting than they should be. We’re instant voyeurs, and there’s something altogether mesmerizing about each tableau, as if Tan’s gracious peephole gives the viewer license to linger.
Tan filmed the dual-screen “Rise and Fall” in Niagara Falls, Belgium and the Netherlands. Its elegiac narrative follows the lives of an older and younger woman during intimate moments: gardening, bathing, taking in the caress of a lover, dressing. Are they the same woman, perhaps framed at different points in her life? Tan certainly wants viewers to ponder this question (the actresses look similar) but seems more concerned with themes of loss and dislocation. Water flows throughout the powerful 22-minute piece, reminding us about time’s inescapable march. After all, past and present often merge into one defining memory of who we are and what we really want to be.
Which might explain my phantom walks along the lovely creek long ago.
“Fiona Tan: Rise and Fall” runs at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (1050 Independence Ave., SW) through Jan. 16, 2011.